Spare the spoilers

For millennia, we struggled with insufficient information. Now our bane is getting too much.

I speak, of course, of the spoiler — learning something before you wanted to know it, in a way that ruins the pleasure of the journey.

After all, when we consume fiction, we don’t just want a summary of the plot. You don’t get the same thrill reading a Wikipedia plot summary as you do letting it unfold. We like to enjoy the moments as they unfold, to discover twists and turns when the author intended, not all at once.

For example, I’ve never seen M. Night Shymalan’s “The Sixth Sense.” Why bother? I learned about the movie’s twist well before I even considered seeing the movie. I’d probably still enjoy watching it, but losing the thrill of figuring it out has sapped any motivation to go out and go see it. And in a world where there’s always another entertainment option, that’s a death knell.

I don’t want to speak too broadly here. There are some cases where some people like spoilers. Some people get very wrapped up in characters’ fates and want to know what’s going to happen. In this case the impact-sapping quality of the spoiler serves as a defense mechanism: When you’re trying not to be traumatized by a characters’ death, knowing that they will or won’t die in advance lets you soften the blow and enjoy the unfolding plot without being consumed by dread. This isn’t a situation I usually find myself in, but I begrudgingly respect those who do. (That, of course, doesn’t mean I won’t tease them for being a spoilsport — pun intended.)

But this is an increasing problem. Unlike in the past, when everyone watched movies and television shows at the same time, home video and online streaming let us watch movies and TV shows months or years after their release. Avoiding spoilers isn’t just a job of a few weeks any more.

The website CollegeHumor recently put together a group of TV actors to address — amusingly, of course — the concept of spoilers and spoiler etiquette:

Some jokes about rock-paper-scissors, knife-fights and speaking privileges aside, that’s actually a pretty reasonable set of guidelines. Basically, the responsibility for not spoiling others falls on the person with the spoiling knowledge — at first. People are allowed to spoil themselves, but at their own risk. People in possession of a spoiler should give their friends and companions a respectable amount of time before spoiling things: two weeks for an ordinary TV episode, two months for a season finale, and a full year for a series finale. (The video doesn’t address movies or books, but a general rule of thumb should apply: be respectful.)

Of course, not all fiction is equally spoiler-prone. It’s a question of how serialized a television show is. A show with little or no serialization — where every episode is self-contained and nothing significant changes — is much safer here. Knowing that there’s an episode of The Simpsons where Homer rides a skateboard off the edge of a gorge might spoil the ending of that episode, but it doesn’t impact the viewing of any of the other 500+ Simpsons episodes, because The Simpsons’ episodic nature returns to the status quo ante almost every time. But knowing the identities of the cylons on Battlestar Galactica matters considerably more, because as a serialized show the discovery of one secret can change everything.

As a matter of principle, I’m firmly against spoilers. (So don’t tell me who the cylons are— I haven’t seen the series yet and intend to!) But I’m also an informavore who finds it very hard to avoid spoiling myself, especially since I tend to watch TV shows almost exclusively long after their airdate.

As CollegeHumor’s video notes, “viewers should seek out information online at the own risk. A spoiler alert is considerate, but should be no means be expected.” That’s followed by a woman exclaiming in disappointment, “Seriously?! I just wanted his dog’s name.”

All that rings true to my experience. While watching Arrested Development — a serialized comedy — last year, I routinely uncovered spoilers about future developments when reading episode pages on Wikipedia, which thoroughly and semi-obnoxiously detailed each and every way a given episode foreshadowed later episodes. After a few times, I forced myself to stop, but it was in many cases too late. Similarly, while watching the serialized drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer lately, I’ve managed to spoil most of the significant series developments for myself through a combination of Wikipedia, retrospective episode reviews and general cultural zeitgeist. (For example, I know the show runs seven seasons as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so clearly the character of Buffy isn’t going away. And I know the character Angel gets his own spinoff, so any sense of menace for his character’s fate is largely gone as well.)

And yet a series can still be enjoyable even when spoiled. When the enjoyability of a piece of fiction DEPENDS on surprising viewers with a twist, it can be gimmicky. Well-done fiction is enjoyable even if the twists have been spoiled, even if ideally you’d have discovered them the way the creator intended. After all, I still enjoy the show Game of Thrones immensely even though I’ve read the novels the show is based on and so basically know everything that will happen. Now, in that case, I still discovered the twists largely1 the way the original author, George R.R. Martin, intended, so I experienced all the emotional swings rather than uncovering things from a plot summary. But even in cases where I was genuinely spoiled — like discovering the “Big Bads” for most Buffy seasons before getting to the twists where Joss Whedon reveals them to the audience — I still liked watching events unfold.

I’ve sometimes wished I could compartmentalize my memory and experience something brand new — to watch the Lord of the Rings movies from the perspective of someone who’s never read J.R.R. Tolkien, as opposed to someone like myself who’s very familiar with his work. But in the absence of such magic, we simply have to make do — keep unwanted spoilers to a minimum, be courteous to others who also want to avoid being spoiled, and try to enjoy things as they come.

  1. I was not always so strict about spoilers. As a kid I had a habit of starting book series in the middle — as, in fact, I did with Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series on which Game of Thrones is based. I first read book two, “A Clash of Kings,” which opens with a bunch of people reacting to the death of a significant character from the first book — a character who meant nothing to me until I went back and read Book 1. I did this semi-regularly, and eventually seem to have gotten sufficiently annoyed by it to become diligent about consuming things in the proper order with minimal spoilers.